We are a little late this month, because it took me longer to get to the book than I’d intended, and then I read the whole thing in almost exactly four hours. Book and movie are vaguely similar to one another, but aside from some very basic outlines, they diverge strongly. Both draw at least a vague outline from the true story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, twin gynecologists who died in New York in 1975 of uncertain causes, probably of barbiturate overdose. How much they have in common, I can’t tell you, but it’s not difficult to see the outline in the original novel, at least.
David and Michael Ross are twins growing up in New York. A friend’s grandfather tells their father that their closeness is a curse, and the best thing that can happen to the boys is to be separated as much as possible. Michael has nightmares about this for years; David barely notices it at all. The boys go to school together. They pay a girl and lose their virginity together. They go to college and med school together. Then Michael meets a woman and falls in love; David applies for a fellowship in Boston in the hopes of separating Michael and Kathy. Instead, David goes off to Boston to treat wealthy women trying to conceive, along with his lover James Romer, and Michael stays in New York and treats women dying of cancer and marries Kathy. Only David cannot truly separate from his twin.
In the movie, Elliot and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons) are twins working together as gynecologists in Toronto. In med school, they invented a retractor that becomes an industry standard; now, they run a practice together where they routinely substitute for one another—both in their personal and professional lives. Elliot has a tendency toward seducing the patients. He seduces Claire (Genevieve Bujold), who has come into the clinic to treat her infertility and turns out to have a “trifurcated cervix.” He then passes her to Beverly, who falls in love with her. This begins the process by which Elliot finds himself separating from Bev.
Pop culture is fascinated by twins. I myself was raised on The Parent Trap; I also read a series of books by Cynthia Blair about “the Pratt Twins,” who were always disguising themselves as one another to solve problems, and of course the assorted Sweet Valley books. Pop culture is full of evil twins, mischievous twins, and place-switching twins. There’s a show from my childhood called The Edison Twins, about fraternal twins—one male, one female—who still look a lot alike and solve mysteries. There’s the Bobbsey Twins. Twins abound, and none are quite like this pair, no matter which version we’re looking at. Heck, the movie even features the first film appearance of the Hennessy twins—Jill and Jacqueline—as twin sex workers. And why Jacqueline never appeared for even a freaky dream sequence on Crossing Jordan I cannot say.
David Cronenberg claims that neither twin is the evil one, and that’s true enough. It is, on the other hand, quite clear that Michael is trying harder to be functional. Okay, yes, he’s the one who ends up with the Seconal addiction, but that’s because David won’t let him go. He wants to stop sleeping with women who think he’s Michael. He wants to separate. He wants to go on to have his own life. But David is horrified at the idea of being ultimately separated from Michael, and he does what he can to sabotage his twin.
Obviously, the movie delves further into body horror than the book. Of course it does. It’s David Cronenberg. There’s a whole Thing about gynecological tools the brothers develop that they have to get a metallurgical artist to create for them. There’s also Claire’s “mutation,” which Bev becomes obsessed with. The poster is designed to combine Irons and Bujold so you can’t tell where one leaves off and the other begins, but the point for Kathy in the book is that she’s one of the only ones who likes Michael and thinks of him first. She’s not a point of obsession for the other twin, who doesn’t even like her, especially because he sees her as separating them.
The book fascinated me more than I was expecting; I’m not much of a horror person. The movie is Jeremy Irons meets David Cronenberg, or “obsession meets body horror.” So if that’s your jam, the movie will be as well. Still, I definitely don’t hear either of them mentioned much these days, and that surprises me. Especially because it’s such a fine performance from Irons. They gave him two dressing rooms and two wardrobes, because he was playing two characters, but he thought that defeated the point and used one, with bits and pieces of both wardrobes. Which proves Irons definitely understood the character pretty well.
Next month, we’ll be wandering back into the past for Moll Flanders. The book is not Daniel Defoe’s best known, obviously. The movie stars Robin Wright and Morgan Freeman and almost never comes up. The book’s public domain, obviously, and easy enough to catch up on if you want to read along. Hopefully, I won’t need the money from your Patreon or Ko-fi to acquire the movie, though!